Penguin Record Breakers
by Martin Franklin
At 100-130cm long and 22-40kg in weight, the Emperor Penguin is by far the largest of all the penguins. (This is, incidentally, only a little smaller than champion gymnast Simone Biles, whose height is 142cm and weight 48kg). But do the Emperor Penguin’s height and weight advantages translate into record-breaking penguin performances?
(1) Greatest Diving Depth – Emperor Penguin vs. Human
Alexey Molchanov holds the current human world record for the deepest single-breath dive (with fins, and without use of weights or inflation devices). He managed 130m. (Without fins, William Trubridge holds the record, at 102m). This equates to the Emperor Penguin’s preferred “average” dive depth, but it can easily dive to 400m, and has even been recorded at a depth of 564m. With a pressure at such depths of up to 30 times that at the surface, and no other penguins able to descend so deep, the Emperor Penguin is unquestionably the champion deep sea diver.1,2
(2) Longest Time Spent Under Water for Emperor Penguins
The human record for this is currently held by Stephane Mifsud, who lasted 11m 35s. This, however, was stationary and in a shallow swimming pool, meaning his physical exertion was negligible, and he was unaffected by water pressure associated with water depth. Again, the Emperor Penguin beats this hands (or perhaps flippers) down: It prefers short dives of 3-6 minutes, but can stay under water for up to 22 minutes, which is longer than any other bird can manage.1
(3) Fastest Swimming Speed of Emperor Penguins
The human world record holder in the 100m freestyle is Cesar Cielo, with a time of 46.91s, which equates to around 4.8mph (7.7kmph). The unofficial fastest recorded penguin to date (though others could be faster) is the Gentoo, at around 22mph (36kmph). That’s around 5 times faster than the fastest human.
Penguins achieve these incredible speeds due to their unique anatomy, which includes:
- A torpedo-like body shape (including legs placed far back on their bodies) which results in remarkably little drag (the legs only being used for steering when swimming);
- Flattened and rigid wing bones, the arrangement of which (unlike in flying birds) create significant forward propulsion on both the up and down-stroke;
- A silky outer layer of feathers; and
- Heavy (non-pneumatic) bones, so the birds are not fighting buoyancy in the way flying birds would.
Penguins also have handy built-in “goggles”, meaning they can see well on both land and in water, as they possess:
- Nictitating membranes (i.e. a transparent inner eyelids which can be drawn over the eyes);
- Flat corneas (the transparent front part of the eyes), which reduce refraction (light changing course in different ways in different media); and
- Strong focusing muscles (allowing them to change their lens shapes as required).1, 3
(4) Competitive Eating (and Remarkable Egg-Care)
Penguins can eat an astonishing quantity of food very quickly, and their consumption increases markedly at particular times, i.e.:
- Immediately before they moult (during a moult, which typically lasts a few weeks, they are no longer water-proof or able to thermo-regulate effectively, and thus cannot go fishing at sea);
- When they have chicks to feed (which are fed regurgitated food);
- In the case of Emperor Penguins, immediately before they start their long (up to 125 mile/200km) “march” to form breeding colonies. This is followed by the males taking on egg-incubation duties (which last for 62-67 days without food and in temperatures as low as minus 60oC, unassisted by their female partners, and with only the body heat of other males with whom they huddle to help stay warm).
This feat of the Emperor Penguin breaks numerous records, including:
- Being the only penguins to breed during the Antarctic winter;
- This being the most intense cold experienced by any warm-blooded animal;
- This being the longest continual incubation period of any bird (although kiwis and great albatrosses incubate for 71-84 days, they leave their nests to feed)2;
- Males being able to regurgitate a protein-rich stomach secretion to feed their chicks for up to 10 days (if the females don’t get back to share chick-feeding duties in time);
- Being the only birds (technically) never to touch land (as they generally form their breeding colonies on winter sea ice).1
Adélie Penguins have been reported as able to eat 25g of krill per minute (which equates to around 0.5% of their body weight per minute).3 This species has also been reported as eating around 800g of food per bird per day (which equates to around 16% of their body weight).4 In terms of weight alone (not calorific content), this is broadly equivalent to an average American man eating two 240g “Big Mac” hamburgers per minute, or 59 “Big Macs” per day.
Two colleagues tell me anecdotally that they once witnessed a chick-raising pair of Humboldt Penguins at ZSL London Zoo rival even the Adélie Penguins mentioned above. In just a few minutes, I am told that these birds (a female named Heidi and a male named Lars, pictured) each ate approximately 80-100 sprats (weighing around 840g). Given these penguins’ normal weights of around 4½kg each, this equates to them each eating around 19% of their normal body weights in one brief sitting.
Of course, Heidi and Lars were behaving naturally and appropriately, given their own nutritional requirements and those of their chicks at that particular time. I only wish I could claim a similar excuse myself in respect of my own occasional over-indulgences.
© Martin Franklin 2019
Martin Franklin is a bird keeper at ZSL London Zoo, and works extensively with Humboldt Penguins. Any views or opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own, and do not necessarily represent those of ZSL
Penguins are amazing animals with even more amazing adaptions that help them live in extreme places. Like this story? Have a story of your own? Leave a comment below. And please help us to continue to provide you with penguin news articles by donating to Penguins International.
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1 De Roy, T., Jones, M. and Cornthwaite, J. (2013). Penguins: Their World, Their Ways. Bloomsbury Publishing: London.
2 Lynch, W. (2007). Penguins of the World. A&C Black Publishers Limited: London.
3 Williams, T. D. (1995). The Penguins. Oxford University Press: New York.
4 Culik, B. M. (1993). Energetics of the Pygoscelid penguins. Habilitation thesis. University of Kiel.